Jibe not funny for Kawhi

Toronto forward Kawhi Leonard dribbling past Miami forward Justise Winslow during the Raptors' 125-115 win at Scotiabank Arena on Sunday. He says he found his former San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich's comments that "he wasn't a leader" funny.
Toronto forward Kawhi Leonard dribbling past Miami forward Justise Winslow during the Raptors' 125-115 win at Scotiabank Arena on Sunday. He says he found his former San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich's comments that "he wasn't a leader" funny.PHOTO: REUTERS

He insists struggles at Spurs last season due to injury and not a lack of leadership

TORONTO • Kawhi Leonard is rarely amused, or so it often seems, to judge from his infamously stoic demeanour.

In fact, when the forward offered a chuckle during his introductory news conference with the Toronto Raptors in September, the odd-sounding noise he made became a viral meme.

So it would have been noteworthy enough for Leonard to have said on Sunday that he found something "funny".

However, the larger context was that he was responding to comments made by Gregg Popovich, his former coach at the San Antonio Spurs who disparaged the 2014 National Basketball Association Finals Most Valuable Player for a lack of leadership qualities.

While discussing on Saturday the importance of Australian guard Patty Mills to San Antonio, particularly after the retirement of Manu Ginobili and the off-season trade of Leonard to Toronto, Popovich told ESPN that "Kawhi wasn't a leader".

"Manu and Patty were the leaders," he said. "Kawhi's talent will always be missed, but that leadership wasn't his deal at that time.

"That may come as he progresses, but Manu and Patty filled that role last year, and LaMarcus (Aldridge) came a long way in that regard also."

Asked about those remarks on Sunday, following a 125-115 home win over the Miami Heat, the Raptors' fifth victory in a row, Leonard, who paced his team with 29 points while grabbing 10 rebounds, expressed his bemusement.

  • 17-4

  • Toronto, with Kawhi Leonard in the team, are off to their best start in franchise history and have the best record in the NBA by far.

"It's just funny to me, because I don't know if he's talking about last year or not. I guess when you stop playing (at San Antonio), they forget how you lead but, other than that, it doesn't matter," he said.

"I'm here with the Raptors, and I'm focused on this season and not what's going on on the other side."

He may have inadvertently referred to the feelings of some Spurs fans and even members of that organisation who thought he stopped playing for their team, rather than actually being unable to do so.

The two-time All-Star struggled with a mysterious thigh injury that limited him to just nine games last season and none after Jan 13.

He grew increasingly estranged from Popovich and other team officials amid public disagreements over the state of his recovery - the team had cleared him medically in February but Leonard reportedly refused to play due to discomfort.

Things came to a head in the summer and the 27-year-old was eventually traded, along with Danny Green, to the Raptors for a package including DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick.

Toronto have reaped the rewards of the low-risk move, getting off to a 17-4 start - the best in franchise history - with Leonard back to playing at an elite level. The Spurs meanwhile, are struggling at 9-10.

And he reiterated his leadership qualities on Sunday by telling reporters that he "motivates people", saying: "I just try to lift people's spirits on the floor, don't try to let nobody get too down."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2018, with the headline 'Jibe not funny for Kawhi'. Print Edition | Subscribe